FRIDAY, 11 FEBRUARY 2011Meditation has been used for thousands of years in religious rituals and as an aid to relaxation and thought. A new study, led by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that the effects of meditation may go much further . The density of participants’ grey matter, which contains the majority of a person’s neuronal cell bodies, was seen to increase with mindfulness meditation over the course of eight weeks.
The plasticity of the brain has been acknowledged for some time with the seat of long-term memory and navigation, the hippocampus, being a prime subject to density changes. In this new study density increases were observed not only in the hippocampus but also the posterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction, brain areas crucial for the distinction of self from others. The cautious conclusions of this research are that meditation may lead to improvement in long term memory and sense of self. There has also been speculation that meditation can cause shrinkage of the amygdala, crucial for fear and stress responses, which could explain the reduced anxiety found after frequent meditation.
Participants of the trial either took part in an eight week mindfulness-based meditation course, or were used as non-meditating controls. Significant differences were found in grey matter density after the trial in the meditating participants, with no change observed in the control group. Although encouraging for the scientific evaluation of meditation, this study used only a small sample size and a relatively short experimental duration. However, with more and more research on meditation, this looks to be a fruitful area for future neurological study.
Written by Philip Leibman